No matter how satisfied you may be with your sex life, it’s only natural to wonder how it stacks up against those around you. Are you having as much sex as your friends? Are you experimenting with sex toys as often? Should you branch out beyond the bedroom?
But the truth is, determining what’s “normal” for your sex life is rather complicated, because your normal might be completely different from another person’s normal.
Still, you may start to worry when things hit a screeching halt between the sheets. So the question still stands: How much sex should happy couples really be having? We talked to several sex and relationship experts to figure out the magic number, why it fluctuates, and what a healthy sex life should look like.
Back up: Why do dry spells happen, anyway?
For the record, it’s common to go through a dry spell at some point in your relationship. “Every relationship without exception experiences dry spells and they occur for a wide variety of reasons,” says Jess O’Reilly, PhD, host of the @SexWithDrJess Podcast. Having kids, getting swamped with work, being stressed out, having a health issue, feeling wiped out, getting poor sleep, and taking certain medications (like antidepressants) can all play a role in your libido, she says.
Stress is one of the biggest factors, says David Ley, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in sexuality issues in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “When the world is so stressful, it’s hard for many people to be sexual,” he says. “Some people have increased sex with stress, but for many, it just shuts them down.”
And sometimes, “life gets in way,” says Logan Levkoff, PhD, certified sex educator. “People are busy, exhausted, and prioritize people and things other than their partner.” However, she adds, “just because it happens doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed. A little intimacy goes a long way.”
The benefits of being regularly intimate with your partner
As you can probably guess, it’s a good thing for your relationship to have regular sex. “Frequently being intimate with your partner allows for bonding and connection,” says Debra Laino, DHS, a board-certified relationship therapist and sex educator. “This is really important in relationships. It allows each person to feel desired and cared for.”
Having sex regularly has also been linked to several health benefits, like feeling happier and even living longer, Ley says.
Studies show that having sex can lower your stress levels and improve sleep, relieve tension in your relationship, and give both you and your partner a greater willingness to discuss your sexual desires, fantasies, and expectations, O’Reilly adds.
And finally, it simply leads to sexual satisfaction. “Pleasure begets more pleasure,” Levkoff says. “One orgasm can lead to more.”
So, how often should you really have sex?
There is no hard and fast rule for how much sex you should be having. “It depends upon the needs or libido of each partner, and their ability to negotiate that with each other,” Ley says.
“For some couples, it’s less about frequency than quality.” O’Reilly agrees. “You define your own version of a healthy sex life. It’s up to you to decide what works for you,” she says, and then effectively communicate that to your partner.
While there’s “so much variation” in what a healthy sex life looks like, Laino says that the average couple between the ages of 26 and 55 has sex once a week. In fact, 2015 research published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science found that of 30,000 couples studied, those who had sex more than once per week didn’t report feeling any happier than those who simply did the deed once per week. As for the couples who experienced sex less than once per week? They reported feeling less fulfilled in their relationships.
But remember, these numbers aren’t exactly rules. “The most important thing for an ideal situation is that there is communication and both parties are in agreement with the amount of sex in the relationship,” Laino says. “Communicating about expectations, needs, wants, and desires is super important.”
And it doesn’t have to be just about penetrative sex, Levkoff says. “Holding hands, kissing, and touching are all important, too,” she says.
When should you worry about lack of sex?
Unhappiness is a big tip-off. That major red flags? You don’t want to have sex at all, your partner doesn’t want to have sex, or you don’t care if you ever have sex again. You might also be concerned if you can’t even remember the last time you and your partner were intimate (including kissing or holding hands) or you feel distant from one another, Levkoff says.
That means “it is time to check in,” she says. And, if you feel like you’re just not communicating well about the topic or it feels aggressive or unhealthy, you may need to see a therapist who can help guide you on how to work through it.
Again, a dry spell or low libido can be caused by tons of factors, including problems in the relationship, excessive stress, and even serious health issues like an underlying sleep disorder or depression. It’s important to take note when things feel off, so you can get to the bottom of the issue—and go back to enjoying a healthy sex life ASAP.
The bottom line: Only you and your partner can determine how much sex you should be having. That means if your friend reveals she has sex several times a week with her partner, but you and your partner are happy with a once every other week basis, don’t sweat it.
This article originally appeared on Prevention US.